New security laws blur line between Hong Kong and mainland China

The territory's pro-Beijing government says new laws on security and the national anthem will not infringe on Hong Kong's freedoms. Japan and other democracies criticized the move. The Trump administration said it no longer regards Hong Kong as autonomous. 

Mark Schiefelbein/AP
China's legislature, pictured at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 28, 2020, has endorsed a national security law for Hong Kong that seeks to quell future protests. The proposal has sparked outrage and strained relations with the United States.

China officially ratified a plan Thursday to write a national security law for Hong Kong that exerts Beijing's broader, new control over the semi-autonomous territory in a bid to prevent a return of the months of often-violent protests last year.

The Beijing-backed Hong Kong government sought to assure its citizens that the law would not infringe on their freedoms, while the pro-democracy opposition described the move as the end of the core values that set the former British colony apart from the rest of China.

“From now on, Hong Kong is nothing but just another mainland Chinese city,” pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said.

China's ceremonial legislature, ending a one-week annual session curtailed because of the coronavirus, approved a decision by the ruling Communist Party to impose national security laws on Hong Kong.

The body's standing committee, a smaller group with decision-making power, is charged with developing the specific laws against secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign interference in Hong Kong's affairs. No timetable has been announced, but they could be enacted at one of its next meetings in June and August.

The move marks a definitive end to China’s more low-key approach to Hong Kong over the large-scale protests last year, said Cornell University China expert Allen Carlson.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, who has come under fire for her handling of the protests, said the decision was welcome because of the difficulty her government faces in passing national security legislation on its own. The city's constitution requires it to enact such a law, but successive governments have been unable or unwilling to because of opposition.

Ms. Lam said in a statement that new laws would “sanction an extremely small minority of criminals who threaten national security” and “not affect the legitimate rights and freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong residents.”

Japan joined the United States and other democracies that have criticized the move. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan is deeply concerned about the decision “amid strong concerns expressed by the international community and the people of Hong Kong.”

Ahead of the decision, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo notified Congress on Wednesday that the Trump administration no longer regards Hong Kong as autonomous from mainland China, setting the stage for the possible withdrawal of preferential trade and financial treatment that the U.S. gives to the former British colony.

Pro-Beijing lawmakers said Hong Kong would retain its high degree of autonomy under the “one-country, two systems" framework that has governed the territory since Britain returned it to China in 1997.

“We truly believe that this decision made by the National People’s Congress would not harm the rights and freedom that Hong Kong people enjoy," pro-Beijing lawmaker Martin Liao said. “It could solve the issue of violence and riot and let citizens return to a peaceful and stable life."

As China's orderly 3,000-member Congress rubber-stamped the move in Beijing, Hong Kong's legislature was taking on another bill that would criminalize insulting or abusing the Chinese national anthem in a raucous session in which three pro-democracy lawmakers were ejected and proceedings halted for about five hours.

This comes after thousands of protesters shouted pro-democracy slogans and insults at police in across Hong Kong on Wednesday. 

In the Central business district, police raised flags warning protesters to disperse before they shot pepper balls at the crowd and searched several people. More than 50 people in the Causeway Bay shopping district were rounded up and made to sit outside a shopping mall, while riot police with pepper spray patrolled and warned journalists to stop filming.

According to Facebook posts by the Hong Kong police force, 360 people were arrested on charges including unauthorized assembly, driving slowly, and possession of items that could be used for unlawful purposes, such as gasoline bombs.

The bill would make it illegal to insult or abuse the Chinese national anthem, “March of the Volunteers” in semi-autonomous Hong Kong. Those guilty of the offense would face up to three years in prison and a fine of $6,450.

Opponents of the bill say it is a blow to freedom of expression in the city, while Beijing officials say it will foster a patriotic spirit and socialist values.

“Western democracies all have laws to protect their national flags, national anthems and emblems. Any insulting acts toward these symbols would also be criminal,” pro-Beijing lawmaker Tony Tse said in the first day of legislative debate.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Charles Mok disagreed, saying the legislation would not help gain the respect of people and was an excuse to control freedom, speech, and ideas of people.

“We oppose the second reading of the national anthem bill, not because we don’t respect the national anthem. The national anthem is a symbol of the country's dignity. If it wants to be respected, then let this government first respect the rights and freedoms of its people first," Mr. Mok said.

The legislature’s president, Andrew Leung, suspended Thursday's meeting shortly after it began and ejected Eddie Chu for holding up a sarcastic sign about a pro-Beijing lawmaker that read “Best Chairperson, Starry Lee.”

A second pro-democracy lawmaker was thrown out for yelling after the meeting resumed, and then a third after rushing forward with a large plastic bottle in a cloth bag that spilled its brownish contents on the floor in front of the president's raised dais.

“We have wanted to use any method to stop this national anthem law getting passed by this legislature, which is basically controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, because the law is just another way of putting pressure on Hong Kong people,” Mr. Chu said outside the chamber.

He said the legislature’s president had objected to his placard calling Ms. Lee an “illegal chairperson” during Wednesday’s first day of debate, so he made a new one that called her the best chairperson instead.

Ms. Lee was recently elected chair of a key committee that sent the anthem bill to the full legislature for consideration. Her election, which the pro-democracy opposition contends was illegal, ended a months-long filibuster that had prevented the committee from acting on the bill and other legislation.

After the meeting restarted, pro-democracy lawmaker Ray Chan started yelling, and Mr. Leung ordered him ejected, too. Then a rushing Ted Hui kicked the cloth bag toward the president's dais after security officers grabbed him and it fell from his hands.

Members left the chamber, security guards sprayed disinfectant and cleaning workers arrived to wipe the carpet. Then firefighters in full protective gear entered and appeared to take samples from the floor using swabs. The meeting didn't resume until 4 p.m.

Mr. Hui later described the contents as a rotten plant, and said he wanted Mr. Leung to feel and smell the rotting of “one country, two systems” and Hong Kong’s civilization. “I wanted him to taste it, unfortunately it [fell] on the ground because I was hit by security guards,” he said.

As the action unfolded, Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong applauded Mr. Pompeo's announcement in a separate news conference.

Sanctions or the freezing of Hong Kong’s special economic status would “let Beijing know it is a must to completely withdraw and stop the implementation of the national security law,” said Mr. Wong, who rose to prominence as a student leader during pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said ahead of Mr. Pompeo's announcement that China would take necessary steps to fight back against any “erroneous foreign interference in Hong Kong’s affairs.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Mr. Moritsugu reported from Beijing. News assistant Nadia Lam in Hong Kong contributed.

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